Monday, November 27, 2006

Ethics, Apologies and the Slave Trade

The BBC is reporting that Tony Blair has expressed his 'sorrow' over Britain's role in the slave trade - but stopped short of a full apology - apparently because of fears that this may lead to demands for (financial) reparations.

You may wish to read what New Nation (the UK's best selling 'Black Newspaper') has to say on the matter - and they have the full text of Blair's speech.

The BBC's 10 Facts About British Slavery may also help inform your view.

What is your view?

Should nations / Governemnts apologise? Who to?

Are financial reparations appropriate?

I look forward to your comments - -



  1. Anonymous11:54 am

    OK heres my 2pence worth:-

    Should nations / Governemnts apologise? Who to?

    Absolutely not.

    Are financial reparations appropriate?

    No, of course not.

  2. Ok - thanks for the start..
    BUT: why not? Would not a full apology help those who are still blighted by the legacy of slavery - and express a strong moral anti-slavery stance on behalf of that Government?

    Just asking...


  3. Anonymous12:11 pm

    OK, i'll answer like this:-

    if Britain apologises for its role in the slave trade, then should not the Italians apologise for the slavery of the British under the Roman Empire? Should not Africa apologise to its own people for its role in the capture and sale of its own citizens into slavery? and how about the virtual slavery fo the British working class 200 years ago?

    I dont see how apologising, either the british or anything mentioned above, does anything to rectify the atrocity of slvery.
    And paying the descendents of the oppressed? how does that aid those who were enslaved?

  4. If it was abolished almost 200 years ago in Britain (1807) then who can seriously claim to be still blighted by its legacy, in the UK at least? Who, after 8 or 9 generations, can reasonably expect compensation?

    I think it could be reasonably argued that the government doesn't need to show a strong anti-slavery stance against something that was abolished so long ago.

  5. OK - you know how I like to disagree - and faced with such unanimity from the students, feel obliged to do so:

    While the Roman Empire is ancient history – the slave trade is much more recent – and is this not an argument of irrelevance? The wrongs of others cannot excuse ‘ours’…

    Also many British firms, and Aristocratic families are still wealthy as a result of the slave trade – should the heirs of slave-traders continue to be privileged as a result of their forebears crimes?

    An apology would make clear where a political body stands – and that it recognises that its predecessors made grave errors – leaving aside the reparations issue – is not an apology a morally decent thing to do?

    Would not refusing to give one be tantamount to morally condoning the acts of slave traders?

    On reparations: just as German museums are meant to return stolen WWII art (on which they have a rather poor record, as it goes) – should we limit the time after which huge crimes against humanity go undealt with? Might we not argue that there are – as said above – who still directly benefit from the slave traders’ legacy – and if you look at the UK’s ethnic minorities – they are often disadvantaged…

    Didn’t mean to rant – but thought a counter-blast necessary: look forward to some disagreements…


  6. Anonymous2:10 pm

    OK, his my 'quick' response to Daves comments;

    On the issue of the Romans, I was not using is as an excuse, just trying to amplify the point of how non-sensical it is to hold accountable peoples so different than the perpetraters purely because they happen to be born in a certain place. If Rome is ancient history, the Slave trade certainly is too in my opinion. If not, what counts as too ancient?

    Secondly, The firms and families who have wealth from the slave trade, are no different to the fact the UK governemnt has wealth from various war efforts, and colonisation in the past etc etc. again, if we are to say they have this wealth because of ill acts, where does it stop? is wealth only afforded to people if it is deemed to have come from moral means? and if so, whos morals? and again, morals change, so is someones wealth today doing somethiung we currently consider OK, under threat for generations to come?

    I disagree that ethnic minorities have suffered any further discrimination due to slavery, I dont feel slavery is an issue at all in any discrimination they may or may not have suffered. I would even go as far as to make the suggestion that perhaps some Black Britons in the UK now, enjoying the wealth of the country, are only here due to the slave trade. Perhaps, in this instance, their distint family being enslaved has afforded them a far better life in a modern, wealthy country? how likely is it many of them would have been able to come to the UK in the first place. An unintentional (from the british slave traders perspective) positive perhaps?

    sorry if these responses are not too coherent, literally quick type before our 'science' lecture.

  7. Anonymous4:32 pm

    If we apologies now, is that in any way an admission of guilt from us?
    I'm not very good at understanding things, and i'm contemplating this at home with the flu, so ignore this if it's senseless, but you can disapprove of and comdemn something that's gone before (ie, slavery) but can't apologies for it (at least not convincingly) as it had nothing to do with us. I personally wouldn't apologise for it because i feel no guilt - i beleive strongly it was an attrocious and disgusting thing, but i had no part in it - because of this, i'll gladly make my feelings known, but wouldn't apologise.

  8. Anonymous7:29 pm

    i fear i kind of left off the point of the above post - apologising now just drags it back up and makes an unrelated generation feel guilt for it all over again, and pay for it once more. It was a gross mistake, but saying sorry now is just prolonging it - we cant move on and forget if that's the case.

  9. ok - some good points so far: but...

    If we leave reparations out of it - why not an apology?

    Not by people, but on behalf of the Nation State that existed then - and persists now? While some may posit that people living in the UK as a result of their ancestor's enslavement are better off than some Africans - so what? Also - we need to recall the negative impact that slavery has had on the countries in Africa. The wiping out of languages and cultures - and much more.. Who can say what might have otherwise happened?

    Yes - other wrongs have (and continue to) happened - but would not an apology be a symbollic recognition of the national guilt? People are keen to draw on national pride and history when it suits them - does that not mean equally admitting and facing up to the wrongs 'we' have committed?

    If we won't apologise for the mistakes of the past - can we ever draw on the past as a source of pride and a basis for 'national values'?

  10. Anonymous8:06 pm

    An apology to who?

  11. Anonymous8:19 pm

    I also feel it importaqnt to re-affirm that Britain - as a government - made a huge statement 200 years ago when it banned the slave trade, and patrolled the seas looking to liberate any other slaves being taken by other nations.

    It is also important to stress that slvery has/does exist in many other realms as well, for example the slavery of 1 million white europeans by north african muslims which flourishd during the same centuries as the heyday of the trans-Atlantic trade from sub-Saharan Africa to the Americas. This slavery was at times brutal - males being castrated and infanticide the norm. (incidently anyone interested in reading about this hould check out a book called 'White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam's One Million White Slaves' by giles milton.

    There are even suggestons some slavery exists still today, perhaps we would be better drawing our efforts to stopping this than deciding whether we shopuld apologise for slavery abandoned 200 years ago.

    But my point is that slavery has existed - and as much as I dont feel any north african governements owe me an apology for what they did to white europeans, nor do I feel our governement owes anyone else an apology either.

    sorry for the long post!

  12. Anonymous8:36 am

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  13. Anonymous9:38 am

    Apologise to ourselves. Hear me out.

    Investigation of war crimes and reparations are important. They inform our behaviour in the present. If we have to analyse, spend public time and money getting to the bottom of old crimes, it may inhibit further possible atrocities.

    Our actions are not isolated to the present. Our actions have repercussions as we are bearing those of our predecessors. Past behaviour of others informs the choices we currently make. Native Americans believe our actions set in place further actions for the next seven generations. We have learnt about cause and effect, karma, in Hinduism. We just learned about Nietzsche who wondered what we would do if our actions repeated themselves; would we continue our current course of action? How proud are we of our present performances?

    We are accountable for past actions. Although our responsibility is to ourself, we want to reflect on what our performance would be if we were in an oppressive situation and we were potentially an oppressor. Would we continue the atrocity (which from an objective point of view of privileged students, we would easily decline)? Within the climate of oppression would we be so noble? Many Nazis were loving family members and humanitarians.

    We strenthen our resolve for humane behaviour by accepting our own weaknesses, i.e. we all harbour an oppressor somewhere inside. Accounting for past shameful behaviour we acknowledge it in ourselves. We suffer the consequences, maybe through payment, or perhaps another form of humiliation, an apology, as a way of bettering our lot, those who we love and for future generations.

  14. Anonymous10:13 am

    My simple response to Myneighbour is this -

    1 - we do spend public money analysing and getting to the bottom of old crimes. I fail to see the relelvence of this to the question in hand (perhaps im missing something!)

    2 - nobody is arguing against cause and effect? but again i strugggle to see the relevence. What i will say, though, is Hinduism, if true, would have dished out its own rewards and punishments through rebirths.

    3 - I am accountable for my own past actions, certainly. why am I accountable for a 18/19C slave barons actions? or why is any african accountable for any african slave seller? or any germany my own age accountable for hitler?

    4 - I agree, it is important for us to acknowledge the wrong doings of peoples of the past. and we do. But an apology now from people who have NOTHING to do with what went on is nothing more than an empty, meaningless gesture.

  15. Anonymous11:49 am

    How can you apologise for an action that you personally have not done? You can feel plenty of things for a mistake made in the past by other people, such as disgust, shame and sorrow. But... You should only apologise when you, yourself, should be held directly accountable for a mistake. It seems like cheating, having someone hundreds of years later apologising for you. Sure, let's bring the subject of slavery to the public mind again- it's wrong, it's a horrible mistake that it happened and now we know better. An apology for it, however, seems like lying to the public. Are they really, personally sorry for what happened? How can they be if THEY didn't do it?

  16. Anonymous1:26 pm

    What humanity is capable of is humiliating. Not one person who has commented has disagreed that atrocities have been committed. Our own behaviour is so fickle and we are given to the sway of popularity, we can never predict what our decisions would be given a choice of an humanitarian ideal. What I meant was 'historical' cause and effect, sowing and reaping. We cannot ignore that 2007 is a totem year for the abolition of the slave trade. It is being celebrated. We are discussing it. It is effecting us. Therefore it is not just a past relic; it is an opportunity for reckoning, conciliation and acknowledgement, to understand our present better and make better decisions.

    Are we currently so far away from slavery, that we can sniff at it like it is a past 'evil' we won't repeat? Are we not still exploiting the Third World? Are we not still exploiting the service of others? The chair you are sitting on now. Where was it made? Be generic. Our merchandise is cheap because of current slave trade trends. It's called the economy. We call it budgeting. The master/slave attitude set in place from our ancestors, is lodged in our thinking, to which we are blind, we don't see it. An apology would help dislodge fossilised attitudes and mindsets by forcing us to acknowledge and take responsibility.

  17. Anonymous3:22 pm

    Having studied the issues on slavery, I can safely say that there is a lot still left unresolved on this issue. There are many mistakes that have been made in the past and we must make sure that in the future they do not get repeated. Also, be ashamed and apologetic towards the people who suffered and still carry mental scars to this day. Send them money and maybe some chocolates to make up for the inhumane things that have taken place in the past. If this doesn't happen, well then you will all go to hell for your sins!!!!

  18. Anonymous3:33 pm

    Good idea to apologize!! Be very Sorry!!

  19. Anonymous4:12 pm

    apoligi-S (not Z, we are in Britain!!!)-e!!!! hate of mine...

  20. How much more effectively can you widen the divide between black and white by acknowledging black 'victimhood' and white 'guilt'? I can think of few better ways of emphasising difference between British people when all our focus ought to be on cohesion.

    Blair has expressed sorrow in a fairly sincere manner. That's enough. Anybody suffering today from the effects of a policy that ended two centuries ago possibly has other problems.

    Not an especially PC response I know... maybe I should say 'sorry'?

    (Okay,okay - just kidding).

  21. Anonymous6:56 pm

    Britain was at the heart of the slave trade - 450 years of bad behaviour that has avoided the history books - definately there should be an apology. Slave owners were compensated but never the slaves. Lets not miss the opportunity!!!!!

  22. Helene,

    Slavery was an atrocity but the slaves are long dead.

    There is nobody alive who engaged in the slave trade. There is nobody alive suffering as a result of the slave trade. So there is nobody to do the apologising and there is nobody to apologise to.

    Most people of African descent living in the UK are far better off in all sorts of ways than their relations in Africa. Their descendency goes back a long way; they are not Africans, they are Britons.

    Opening 'wounds' that you need an education in history in order to experience brings out the most unsavoury of human characteristics - resentment, prejudice, arrogance - and does absolutely nothing productive for relations between black and white.

  23. Anonymous9:29 pm

    Check out HS110 Freedom and Slavery in Year One, Semester Two and tell me that Slavery is not a subject of scholarly interest. I might add that it didn't start to be scholarly until the 1960s after the slave diaries came into circulation, 100 years after the fact. Education is absolutely essential for understanding. Education is not 'opening wounds'. It is sharpening our critical skills so we understand better. Are you separate from your ancestors, your personal family tree? Most of us feel some kinship with our people. Blacks aren't separate from this, even generations on.

    Please refer to the Sartre section and his essay 'Existentialism is a Humanism' on this blog. I want to quote from Sartre's essay to support my argument that we are not isolated from our past and we are not isolated from others. Our present responsibilities have been unfolded in front of us from the triumphs and failures of our predecessors and we have a say in the future, like those before us. We do not act for our Self alone, as our ancestors didn't. We celebrate the freedoms that were fought for us, but we need to reckon the injustices that also took place. We celebrate and suffer the actions of history. There wouldn't have been a celebration for abolition and emancipation if there hadn't been slavery. "... the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsiblity for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders. And, when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men." p. 4. And on page 6, "Everything happens to every man as though the whole human race had its eyes fixed upon what he is doing and regulated its conduct accordingly. So every man ought to say, "Am I really a man who has the right to act in such a manner that humanity regulates itself by what I do." We look to our forefathers with shame, at least I do, on this issue. And in humility and responsibility feel compelled to apologise.